Painterly Peaks

While Sojourning In Tucson, Abstract Expressionist Adolph Gottlieb Scaled New Heights.

NORTH OF DOOLEN Middle School, Edith Boulevard stretches toward the Catalina Mountains, its wide road opening up toward fine views of craggy blue and beige peaks. A motley mix of houses line the street. A few scrupulously tended adobes with flowery front yards stand among '50s and '60s ranch houses that have begun a steady decline.

Here on this unprepossessing block there once lived a painter who later became a leading member of the Abstract Expressionists, the group of New York artists who changed American art in the 1940s and '50s.

In the fall of 1937, Adolph Gottlieb and his wife, Esther, piled up their Model T Ford with paints and canvas, and pointed their car out of New York City in the direction of remote Tucson. The hot climate was to provide Esther respite from her arthritis, and the enforced isolation was to give both Gottliebs plenty of time to paint. They rented a house in the open desert far outside of town, on what is now Edith, between Bermuda and Flower.

"Just the view from our house is about as fine as I have seen anywhere," Gottlieb wrote to a friend in December. "We always get a kick and a surprise when we step out and see the mountains."

They settled into this strange country, and began to paint. The mountains found their way into the more than 50 paintings, 50 drawings, and gouaches Gottlieb produced over the next eight months. Some of his most interesting work combined desert detritus with desert landscape. "Untitled (Still Life-Landscape in Window)," a 1938 oil on canvas, positions dried cactus skeletons and a bit of bone in front of a window opening onto the Catalinas. Its familiar western slope rises up toward Finger Rock, a view still entirely visible from Edith. The Tucson Mountains were farther away from his home, but their characteristic triangular peaks show up in a number of paintings. In "Circus Performers," a brown plein air painting, monumental costumed ladies dwarf the familiar hills.

Adolph Gottlieb and the West, now on view at the Tucson Museum of Art, zeroes in on the artist's fruitful Tucson sojourn, while adding a few examples of his pre- and post-desert work for comparison. This intriguing show was curated by the TMA's Joanne Stuhr, who also did a wonderful job of historical excavation on the Gottliebs' time in Tucson, which is detailed in the catalog. (Stuhr's essay is the source for much of the biographical information in this article.) The show gathers together some 50 pieces of art. Most are oils on canvas, rounded out by a sprinkling of lively gouache studies, charcoal drawings and at least one woodcut.

The most charming of the woodblocks, "Untitled (Arizona Landscape)," circa 1938, shows off the Gottliebs' domestic tranquility in Tucson. Simplified into just a few white lines, Edith sprawls on a lawn chair outside the house, a trio of nearby saguaros jumping quirkily in all directions.

"We enjoy the quiet life" in Tucson, Gottlieb wrote to a friend in December. (His one attempt to get into the local art scene ended in disaster. The Tucson Brush and Palette Club hung his still life entry to a juried show ignominiously behind a door.) In New York, he was a member of a lively art group called The Ten, whose members also included Mark Rothko, and the painters were in and out of each others' studios constantly. The solitary Tucson interlude gave him a chance to focus on what he really wanted to paint.

"I think I got more into my own when I went to Arizona," Gottlieb told an interviewer in 1967.

If the time in Tucson was restful for the Gottliebs, art historians believe it was also crucial for Adolph's future work as an artist. Though filled with cactus skeletons and mountain views, his work here moved away from the more detailed and more modeled work of his earlier career. The show is book-ended with pre- and post-Arizona paintings to prove the point. In the early '30s, Gottlieb was still working a variety of genres. His still lifes ("Still Life (Gate Leg Table)," 1925) and portraits ("Esther," 1931) have shapes that were still rounded and relatively detailed. Esther's features are recognizable. In Tucson, his work moved away from this more detailed and more modeled work of his earlier career. The still lifes became flatter and more simplified, the portraits more monumental and archetypal.

And he greedily imbibed the lessons of traditional Indian arts, in the sand paintings and weavings he saw at the Arizona State Museum, paving the way for the famous Pictographs -- grids of symbolic objects -- that later helped make him famous. There's even a "sand" painting in this show. In "Untitled (Wrestlers)" from 1938, Gottlieb mixed in sand with his oils, and painted the wrestling arena as though he were sprinkling colors on the earth. The arena is flattened out, with no hint of Renaissance perspective, and the geometric spaces around it are the brown of dirt.

Gottlieb was stumped, briefly, by the unfamiliarity of the land. Of the mountains, he wrote, they're "not green ones like Vermont but enormous jagged hunks of red brown rock...We've taken a few cracks at painting the Arizona scene but it's no go at present." After becoming acclimated, he did paint landscapes that he liked, though apparently not all of them have survived. The browns of the winter desert seep into all his Tucson landscapes and still lifes; it's a little disconcerting for those of us used to the routine rainbow of desert hues seen in '90s paintings.

Gottlieb threw his greatest energies into the still life series that some critics still consider his finest work. Like the other Abstract Expressionists, Gottlieb was interested in symbolism and the unconscious, and in Tucson he gathered up objects that sometimes stand in for the strange land in which he found himself. He picked up gourds from the local produce markets and cactus leavings found during his desert walks, and he even appropriated the chessboard that provided the couple evening entertainment in the Sleepy Pueblo. In the paintings, these objects are soft-edged, even blurry, posed on tilted tabletops borrowed from Cézanne. They float, seemingly randomly, across the flat surface, like the elements in a collage by Braque or Picasso.

Back in New York, Gottlieb exhibited some of his Arizona paintings, including 1938's fine "Symbols and the Desert," a combo still life and landscape that eloquently sums up all his Tucson themes. An open window frames the tiny Tucson Mountains in the distance, and a whitened cactus spine, eggs and orange slices stand on a table in quiet solemnity.

That horizon line can be detected in his later Imaginary Landscapes, with their horizontal planes and blocks of color, the solitary floating shapes in the sunlike orbs of his Burst paintings. In fact, it's hard to see these later paintings and not think of the views he imbibed back on Edith, the still open desert, the looming mountains and the empty skies.

Adolph Gottlieb and the West continues through January 8 at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2, $1 for seniors and students. Children 12 and under are free. For more information, call 624-2333.